With the precision of a Swiss clock, the controversy over Richard Wagner flares up in Israel once every decade. This time it arose over the self-censorship at the Israeli Opera and Tel Aviv University. Dread of demonstrations by Holocaust victims and the fear that donors will close their purses have made these two institutions turn their backs on key values - artistic freedom, freedom of thought and freedom of expression.
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For several decades, culture ministers from various parties have refrained from intervening directly in the Wagner issue and have let cultural institutions decide for themselves. The issue has usually been the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra's attempts to play the composer's works. The IPO made such attempts in the 1980s and 1990s; the storm and mudslinging that followed kept it from making further attempts.
About a decade ago, the Tel Aviv District Court was asked to rule on a petition by two survivors from Rishon Letzion who demanded that the local symphony orchestra be prevented from playing Wagner's works. Basing his argument on the spirit adopted by the culture minister, Judge Yehooda Zaft ruled that the orchestra could decide for itself. The orchestra decided to play Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll," but in the middle, an elderly man interrupted the music using a loud rattle.
The opera and university have taken a different position. This suggests Tel Aviv might not be the bubble it is said to be and that it's like any other Israeli city.
Like many others of his generation, Wagner was anti-Semitic. But he backed up his anti-Semitism in writing. His essay "The Jews in Music" is saturated with hatred for Jews, two of whom - Giacomo Meyerbeer and Felix Mendelsohn Bartholdy (who was actually born a Christian ) - were greatly envied by Wagner. Later, Wagner became Adolf Hitler's personal hero; the Fuhrer used his inspiration to help him gain power.
All this was good enough reason to forgo playing the opening to the opera "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg" on November 12, 1938, three days after Kristallnacht. Since then, in effect, Wagner's music has been banned from public places in Israel. His music can only be heard in out-of-the-way places. Holocaust survivors' testimony that Wagner's music brings back memories of the Nazi terror has seeped down to the younger generations. Today, the argument is not between the survivors and Wagner fans, but between various schools of interpretation.
One school believes that Israelis should stop considering Wagner a symbol of the Holocaust and that a boycott should not be a means of remembering the Shoah, since boycotting was a central tool in inculcating racism in Nazi Germany. The other school believes that true Israeliness means a willingness to forgo Wagner on behalf of the memory of the Holocaust and its injustices - a memory that will remain with us even after the last survivor is gone. Both of these views are legitimate.
As time goes by, the pendulum-swing between these two approaches becomes more complex. In around 20 years, when there are no more survivors, we will no longer be able to pin our feelings on the fact that we are showing respect to survivors and therefore boycotting the composer. The discussion is taking place between Israelis, some of them descendants of survivors and others not, most of them Jewish but some not.
The question is not merely whether to play Wagner's music in public. The question is whether Israelis seek to confront their complicated past or wrap themselves forever in a yellow Star of David, as if this had the power to protect them from a debate.